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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 August, 2003, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
Saving the world's 'endangered instruments'
Craftsmen construct ancient Chinese instruments
Methods of building ancient instruments are being recorded
A museum in London is stepping in around the world to help preserve musical instruments in danger of disappearing from their native cultures.

The Horniman museum in Forest Hill, London, has acquired around 7,000 instruments in total and recently opened an exhibition to display some of the rarest.

The instruments are in danger of dying out for two reasons, the museum's curator, Margaret Birley, told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

"[There are] those instruments that are going to fall out of fashion, and those instruments that have been taken away people's cultures because of changes in political regimes," she said.

"In the latter category, we can think of some of the instruments from Afghanistan which are displayed here."

These include Afghanistan's national instrument, the rubab, outlawed by the Taleban when they banned the playing of musical instruments in the 1990s.

The rebab is regarded in the country as the "gateway to the soul".

Cultural threat

Another instrument in danger of disappearing due to cultural pressures is the guqin, from China.

Kazakhstan's culture minister Blekpolat Tleukhan with school child (Pic: Michael Church)
Kazakhstan is trying to re-establish its culture after the fall of the USSR
The guqin stopped being played during the country's Cultural Revolution, as it was associated with elements not approved of by the regime.

It was considered "too intellectual", Ms Birley said, although she added it was now becoming more popular again.

The Horniman gallery displays instruments along three themes - the way instruments are used during the course of human life, the way they have been invented and played, and how they have travelled between continents.

"We integrate our collecting operations with museum policy," Ms Birley said.

"Traditionally not many museums in this country have had collections made of instruments from the republics of the former Soviet Union.

'Cultural context'

"So I've been collecting in places like Belarus, and Russia and Uzbekistan, to try and fill some of the gaps in the collection."

As well as collecting, the museum has also begun documenting all the stages of building the instruments, so it will be possible to construct them again in the future.

"Normally we work with musicians in the country who can take us to the best musical instrument-makers," Ms Birley said.

People listen to the radio in Afghanistan
Music has been revived in Afghanistan after the Taleban's fall
"When we acquire musical instruments we usually interview the makers and talk to them about the manufacturing techniques."

This process included the use of various recording materials to ensure no aspect of the preparation was missed, Ms Birley added.

"We take video cameras and tape recorders, so we can make recordings of the instruments being performed and document some of the performance techniques," she said.

"We also want to capture some of the cultural context of the performance."

Margaret Birley talks to Golda Arthur
"I've been collecting in places like Belarus, and Russia and Uzbekistan"

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